Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Movie review: Session 9

Session 9 is a 2001, small budget horror film where, to quote one of the movie's cast and crew, the horror is about "dread, not shock."  This haunted house story is nicely done, slowly ratcheting up the tension to the inevitable reveal at the end, never devolving into (too much) carnage.

The story unfolds over the period of a week in which an asbestos abatement crew is hired to clean up the Danvers State Hospital, an old lunatic asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts, before construction crews come in for a massive remodel.  The five-man crew consists of: Gordon, the owner of the asbestos abatement company who is suffering from sleep deprivation in the wake of his new baby's birth; his second-in-command Phil, intense, pragmatic, and bitter as all get out; Hank, the cocky young buck, always looking for his golden ticket and currently shacked up with Phil's ex-girlfriend (hence the bitterness); Mike, the law school dropout, too smart for the job but not sure what to do with his life; and Jeff, Gordon's acne-scarred, mullet-headed nephew.

There is a sixth major character in Session 9: the building itself.  The movie was filmed on location and the old hospital is grander and more scary than any CGI construct could ever be.  Built in 1874, the Danvers State Hospital was enormous, holding 2,000 [severely overcrowded] patients at one point.  It was said to be the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy - essentially an icepick through the eye socket - and home to some abusive treatments of its inmates.  The hospital was emptied of patients in the late 1980s and finally shut down in 1992.  In the movie, the building radiates fallen grandeur and decay, the red brick towers looming over the landscape while inside, the treatment rooms, corridors and subterranean tunnels echo with their former denizens' madness.

As the asbestos crew works away, the hospital manages to split them up and worm its menace into each of them.  Mike finds a series of reel-to-reel recordings in an old office, and steals away as often as he can to listen to the nine sessions of one Mary, afflicted with multiple personalities.  The voiceover of these sessions weaves in and around the other guys, as Phil buys drugs to deal with the job's stress, Jeff's fear of the dark threatens to overcome him in the tunnels, Gordon slaps his wife in an exhausted rage and Hank uncovers a hidden cache of old coins in the basement morgue.  Things get tenser and creepier, the guys lashing out at one another, until you just know one of them is going to succumb to the building's insanity.  The fun is figuring out who will crack first.  I guessed wrong.

The coda to Session 9 is that the amazing old hospital was finally torn down in 2006, despite the protests of preservation groups and the building's listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  The plan was to build apartment buildings on the grounds but the initial attempt was destroyed in a mysterious fire that gutted the place.  All that is left now are some cemetaries, blocked off tunnels, the brick administration facade and a couple of wards.  Despite its troubled lifespan and ultimate demise, the Danvers State Hospital lives on in Session 9, and this film is as much a monument to the building as it is an effectively creepy little horror flick.

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